Do directors swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I hope not.
It's conventional wisdom that everything from Beckett to Chariots of Fire took historical liberties to tell a compelling story. No fault, no foul. And if anyone is getting their education from Oliver Stone movies, they have a bigger problem than just making bad choices.
Three very different historical biopics made North American premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week. Two succeeded. And the one that didn't may have let the facts get in the way of good drama.
Robert Redford knows a thing or two about telling a true story, either as director (Quiz Show) or producer (All the President's Men), and his latest effort is grand ... at least in scope. The Conspirator tells the little-known tale of Mary Surratt, the lone female accused in the assassination plot of Abraham Lincoln. The backdrop is big: a nation in crisis in the midst of war. The themes are big: constitutional rights of war criminals. Unfortunately, the movie is big as well. About 20 minutes too big. And while painstaking detail was put into sets, scenery and costumes, character development didn't receive the same treatment. James McAvoy anchors the film, which also features Kevin Kline, Tom Wilkinson and Evan Rachel Wood. Redford brought the movie to TIFF in search of a distributor. I hope he finds one. History buffs will probably love the movie. The rest of us, I'm not so sure.
Fast forward about 70 years for the setting of another historical drama. The King's Speech is a little-known tale of George VI, who would become King of England. Colin Firth plays the man who would rule the British Empire following the sudden death of his father and the even more sudden abdication of his brother. But the success of the film is based not on its grand backdrop but its intimate consideration of George's battle with stuttering. A generation earlier or a generation later and the world may never have known about his problem. Twenty years prior there really wasn't any radio broadcasting, and a king needn't do much more than pose for a photograph. Twenty years later and a radio broadcast could have been taped or even edited. But when George VI was king, there was only one acceptable method of communicating: live radio.
At the urging of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the king employs an unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The scenes between Firth and Rush are a master class.
But the real star may be the script. Author David Seidler had strong motivation.
"Very simply, the reason I wrote this is because I was a stutterer," Seidler told me following a screening.
"I had a terrible stammer," he said. "So my parents told me to listen to the radio. They told me in hushed tones that the king was a stutterer, too. I would listen to his speeches and he became my hero. I always knew I would tell this story."
Firth, Rush, Seidler and director Tom Hooper are already facing questions about the dreaded phrase, "Oscar buzz."
"Even if you had a prevailing feeling about a nomination, there's no way to sustain it," admitted Firth. "If people are throwing baubles at you, it makes up for the years of rotten tomatoes."
Oscar buzz is also swirling around Hilary Swank, who already has two golden statuettes on her mantel. She stars in Conviction, another film based on a true story.
Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed high school dropout and single mother who puts herself through law school in order to clear her brother (Sam Rockwell) of murder. For my money (even after exchanging for Canadian currency), this is Rockwell's movie. He scorches the screen. And this may turn out to be one of the best years for supporting actor performances. Minnie Driver plays Water's law school friend who assists with the case.
There are many ways to weave a true story into a compelling movie. Conviction's director Tony Goldwyn dares to jump around rather than offer a chronological timeline. While some may struggle with the imperfection of his method, it was quite valid (who remembers everything chronologically?).
When Conviction ended and the lights came up, the audience erupted into applause as they acknowledged the real-life Betty Anne Waters standing in the theater. Were there some liberties taken in the film? Probably. Did Waters care? Not one bit.